Dixie's Censored Subject: Black Slave Owners
Culture/Society Extended News News Keywords: BLACK SLAVE OWNERS
Source: Barnes Review
Author: By Robert M. Grooms
Posted on 02/13/2001 12:58:03 PST by meandog
Dixie's Censored Subject: Black Slaveowners
By Robert M. Grooms
© 1997 (this article is copyrighted and is provided here courtesy of the Barnes Review)
In an 1856 letter to his wife Mary Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee called slavery "a moral and
political evil." Yet he concluded that black slaves were immeasurably better off here than in
Africa, morally, socially and physically.
The leftists who predominate in the mass media and the world of academe have refashioned
the by gone world of slavery and black life in the Old South. Their agenda does not allow for a
balanced view of a world they never knew.
In a society molded by highly skewed and agenda- selective presentations of history, the
tightest censorship involves the fact that large numbers of free Negroes owned black slaves; in
fact, in numbers disproportionate to their representation in society at large. In 1860 only a small
minority of whites owned slaves. According to the U.S. census report for that last year before
the Civil War, there were nearly 27 million whites in the country. Some eight million of them
lived in the slaveholding states.
The census also determined that there were fewer than 385,000 individuals who owned
slaves Even if all slaveholders had been white, that would amount to only 1.4 percent of
whites in the country (or 4.8 percent of southern whites owning one or more slaves).
In the rare instances when the ownership of slaves by free Negroes is acknowledged in the
history books, justification centers on the claim that black slave masters were simply individuals
who purchased the freedom of a spouse or child from a white slaveholder and had been unable to
legally manumit them. Although this did indeed happen at times, it is a misrepresentation of the
majority of instances, one which is debunked by records of the period on blacks who owned
slaves. These include individuals such as Justus Angel and Mistress L. Horry, of Colleton
District, South Carolina, who each owned 84 slaves in 1830. In fact, in 1830 a fourth of the free
Negro slave masters in South Carolina owned 10 or more slaves; eight owning 30 or more (2) .
According to federal census reports, on June 1, 1860 there were nearly 4.5 million Negroes in
the United States, with fewer than four million of them living in the southern slaveholding states.
Of the blacks residing in the South, 261,988 were not slaves. Of this number, 10,689 lived in
New Orleans. The country's leading African American historian, Duke University professor
John Hope Franklin, records that in New Orleans over 3,000 free Negroes owned slaves, or 28
percent of the free Negroes in that city.
To return to the census figures quoted above, this 28 percent is certainly impressive when
compared to less than 1.4 percent of all American whites and less than 4.8 percent of southern
whites. The statistics show that, when free, blacks disproportionately became slave masters.
The majority of slaveholders, white and black, owned only one to five slaves. More often
than not, and contrary to a century and a half of bullwhips-on-tortured-backs propaganda, black
and white masters worked and ate alongside their charges; be it in house, field or workshop. The
few individuals who owned 50 or more slaves were confined to the top one percent, and have
been defined as slave magnates.
In 1860 there were at least six Negroes in Louisiana who owned 65 or more slaves The
largest number, 152 slaves, were owned by the widow C. Richards and her son P.C. Richards,
who owned a large sugar cane plantation. Another Negro slave magnate in Louisiana, with over
100 slaves, was Antoine Dubuclet, a sugar planter whose estate was valued at (in 1860 dollars)
$264,000 (3) . That year, the mean wealth of southern white men was $3,978 .
In Charleston, South Carolina in 1860 125 free Negroes owned slaves; six of them owning 10
or more. Of the $1.5 million in taxable property owned by free Negroes in Charleston, more
than $300,000 represented slave holdings ( '. In North Carolina 69 free Negroes were slave
owners v .
In 1860 William Ellison was South Carolina's largest Negro slaveowner. In Black Masters.
A Free Family of Color in the Old South, authors Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roak write a
sympathetic account of Ellison's life. From Ellison's birth as a slave to his death at 71, the
authors attempt to provide justification, based on their own speculation, as to why a former slave
would become a magnate slave master.
At birth he was given the name April. A common practice among slaves of the period was to
name a child after the day or month of his or her birth. Between 1800 and 1802 April was
purchased by a white slave-owner named William Ellison. Apprenticed at 12, he was taught the
trades of carpentry, blacksmithing and machining, as well as how to read, write, cipher and do
On June 8, 1816, William Ellison appeared before a magistrate (with five local freeholders as
supporting witnesses) to gain permission to free April, now 26 years of age. In 1800 the South
Carolina legislature had set out in detail the procedures for manumission. To end the practice of
freeing unruly slaves of "bad or depraved" character and those who "from age or infirmity" were
incapacitated, the state required that an owner testify under oath to the good character of the
slave he sought to free. Also required was evidence of the slave's "ability to gain a livelihood in
an honest way."
Although lawmakers of the time could not envision the incredibly vast public welfare
structures of a later age, these stipulations became law in order to prevent slaveholders from
freeing individuals who would become a burden on the general public.
Interestingly, considering today's accounts of life under slavery, authors Johnson and Roak
report instances where free Negroes petitioned to be allowed to become slaves; this because they
were unable to support themselves.
Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (University Press of Virginia-
1995) was written by Ervin L. Jordan Jr., an African- American and assistant professor and
associate curator of the Special Collections Department, University of Virginia library. He
wrote: "One of the more curious aspects of the free black existence in Virginia was their
ownership of slaves. Black slave masters owned members of their family and freed them in their
wills. Free blacks were encouraged to sell themselves into slavery and had the right to choose
their owner through a lengthy court procedure."
In 1816, shortly after his manumission, April moved to Stateburg. Initially he hired slave
workers from local owners. When in 1817 he built a gin for Judge Thomas Watries, he credited
the judge nine dollars "for hire of carpenter George for 12 days." By 1820 he had purchased two
adult males to work in his shop (7) . In fewer than four years after being freed, April demonstrated
that he had no problem perpetuating an institution he had been released from. He also achieved
greater monetary success than most white people of the period.
On June 20, 1820, April appeared in the Sumter District courthouse in Sumterville.
Described in court papers submitted by his attorney as a "freed yellow man of about 29 years of
age," he requested a name change because it "would yet greatly advance his interest as a
tradesman." A new name would also "save him and his children from degradation and contempt
which the minds of some do and will attach to the name April." Because "of the kindness" of his
former master and as a "Mark of gratitude and respect for him" April asked that his name be
changed to William Ellison. His request was granted.
In time the black Ellison family joined the predominantly white Episcopalian church. On
August 6, 1824 he was allowed to put a family bench on the first floor, among those of the
wealthy white families. Other blacks, free and slave, and poor whites sat in the balcony.
Another wealthy Negro family would later join the first floor worshippers.
Between 1822 and the mid- 1840s, Ellison gradually built a small empire, acquiring slaves in
increasing numbers. He became one of South Carolina's major cotton gin manufacturers, selling
his machines as far away as Mississippi. From February 1817 until the War Between the States
commenced, his business advertisements appeared regularly in newspapers across the state.
These included the Camden Gazette, the Sumter Southern Whig and the Black River Watchman.
Ellison was so successful, due to his utilization of cheap slave labor, that many white
competitors went out of business. Such situations discredit impressions that whites dealt only
with other whites. Where money was involved, it was apparent that neither Ellison's race or
former status were considerations.
In his book, Ervin L. Jordan Jr. writes that, as the great conflagration of 1861-1865
approached: "Free Afro-Virginians were a nascent black middle class under siege, but several
acquired property before and during the war. Approximately 169 free blacks owned 145,976
acres in the counties of Amelia, Amherst, Isle of Wight, Nansemond, Prince William and Surry,
averaging 870 acres each. Twenty-rune Petersburg blacks each owned property worth $1,000
and continued to purchase more despite the war."
Jordan offers an example: "Gilbert Hunt, a Richmond ex-slave blacksmith, owned two
slaves, a house valued at $1,376, and $500 in other properties at his death in 1863." Jordan
wrote that "some free black residents of Hampton and Norfolk owned property of considerable
value; 17 black Hamptonians possessed property worth a total of $15,000. Thirty-six black men
paid taxes as heads of families in Elizabeth City County and were employed as blacksmiths,
bricklayers, fishermen, oystermen and day laborers. In three Norfolk County parishes 160 blacks
owned a total of $41,158 in real estate and personal property.
The general practice of the period was that plantation owners would buy seed and equipment
on credit and settle their outstanding accounts when the annual cotton crop was sold. Ellison,
like all free Negroes, could resort to the courts for enforcement of the terms of contract
agreements. Several times Ellison successfully sued white men for money owed him.
In 1838 Ellison purchased on time 54.5 acres adjoining his original acreage from one
Stephen D. Miller. He moved into a large home on the property. What made the acquisition
notable was that Miller had served in the South Carolina legislature, both in the U.S. House of
Representatives and the Senate, and while a resident of Stateburg had been governor of the state.
Ellison's next door neighbor was Dr. W.W. Anderson, master of "Borough House, a magnificent
18th Century mansion. Anderson's son would win fame in the War Between the States as
General "Fighting Dick" Anderson.
By 1847 Ellison owned over 350 acres, and more than 900 by 1860. He raised mostly cotton,
with a small acreage set aside for cultivating foodstuffs to feed his family and slaves. In 1840 he
owned 30 slaves, and by 1860 he owned 63. His sons, who lived in homes on the property,
owned an additional nine slaves. They were trained as gin makers by their father (8) . They had
spent time in Canada, where many wealthy American Negroes of the period sent their children
for advanced formal education. Ellison's sons and daughters married mulattos from Charleston,
bringing them to the Ellison plantation to live.
In 1860 Ellison greatly underestimated his worth to tax assessors at $65,000. Even using this
falsely stated figure, this man who had been a slave 44 years earlier had achieved great financial
success. His wealth outdistanced 90 percent of his white neighbors in Sumter District. In the
entire state, only five percent owned as much real estate as Ellison. His wealth was 15 times
greater than that of the state's average for whites. And Ellison owned more slaves than 99
percent of the South' s slaveholders.
Although a successful businessman and cotton farmer, Ellison's major source of income
derived from being a "slave breeder." Slave breeding was looked upon with disgust throughout
the South, and the laws of most southern states forbade the sale of slaves under the age of 12. In
several states it was illegal to sell inherited slaves (9) . Nevertheless, in 1840 Ellison secretly
began slave breeding.
While there was subsequent investment return in raising and keeping young males, females
were not productive workers in his factory or his cotton fields. As a result, except for a few
females he raised to become "breeders," Ellison sold the female and many of the male children
born to his female slaves at an average price of $400. Ellison had a reputation as a harsh master.
His slaves were said to be the district's worst fed and clothed. On his property was located a
small, windowless building where he would chain his problem slaves.
As with the slaves of his white counterparts, occasionally Ellison's slaves ran away. The
historians of Sumter District reported that from time to time Ellison advertised for the return of
his runaways. On at least one occasion Ellison hired the services of a slave catcher. According
to an account by Robert N. Andrews, a white man who had purchased a small hotel in Stateburg
in the 1820s, Ellison hired him to run down "a valuable slave." Andrews caught the slave in
Belleville, Virginia. He stated: "I was paid on returning home $77.50 and $74 for expenses.
William Ellison died December 5, 1861. His will stated that his estate should pass into the
joint hands of his free daughter and his two surviving sons. He bequeathed $500 to the slave
daughter he had sold.
Following in their father's footsteps, the Ellison family actively supported the Confederacy
throughout the war. They converted nearly their entire plantation to the production of corn,
fodder, bacon, corn shucks and cotton for the Confederate armies. They paid $5,000 in taxes
during the war. They also invested more than $9,000 in Confederate bonds, treasury notes and
certificates in addition to the Confederate currency they held. At the end, all this valuable paper
The younger Ellisons contributed more than farm produce, labor and money to the
Confederate cause. On March 27, 1863 John Wilson Buckner, William Ellison's oldest
grandson, enlisted in the 1st South Carolina Artillery. Buckner served in the company of
Captains P.P. Galliard and A.H. Boykin, local white men who knew that Buckner was a Negro.
Although it was illegal at the time for a Negro to formally join the Confederate forces, the
Ellison family's prestige nullified the law in the minds of Buckner's comrades. Buckner was
wounded in action on July 12, 1863. At his funeral in Stateburg in August, 1895 he was praised
by his former Confederate officers as being a "faithful soldier."
Following the war the Ellison family fortune quickly dwindled. But many former Negro
slave magnates quickly took advantage of circumstances and benefited by virtue of their race.
For example Antoine Dubuclet, the previously mentioned New Orleans plantation owner who
held more than 100 slaves, became Louisiana state treasurer during Reconstruction, a post he
held from 1868 to 1877 (10) .
A truer picture of the Old South, one never presented by the nation's mind molders, emerges
from this account. The American South had been undergoing structural evolutionary changes
far, far greater than generations of Americans have been led to believe. In time, within a
relatively short time, the obsolete and economically nonviable institution of slavery would have
disappeared. The nation would have been spared awesome traumas from which it would never
1 . The American Negro, Raymond Logan and Irving Cohen New York: Houghton and Mifflin,
2. Black Masters. A Family of Color in the Old South, Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roak
New York: Norton, 1984), p. 64.
3. The Forgotten People, Gary Mills (Baton Rouge, 1977); Black Masters, p. 128.
4. Men and Wealth in the US: 1850-1870, Lee Soltow (New Haven, 1975), p. 85.
5. Black Masters, Appendix, Table 7; p. 280.
6. Black Masters, p.62.
7. Information on the Ellison family was obtained from Black Masters; the number of slaves
they owned was gained from U.S. Census Reports.
8. In 1860 South Carolina had only 21 gin makers; Ellison, his three sons and a grandson
account for five of the total.
9. Neither Black Nor White: Slaveiy and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States, Carl N.
Degler (New York, Macmillan, 1971), p. 39; Negro Slavery in Louisiana, Joe Gray Taylor
(Baton Rouge, 1963), pp. 4041.
10. Reconstruction, 1863-1877, Eric Foner (New York; Harper & Row, 1988), p.47; pp.353-355.
Robert Grooms is a freelance writer living in Indiana.